Wildlife Filmmaking

The advent of nature documentaries..

A rough guide to the history of Wildlife Filmmaking

Before reading any of the individual stories about the pioneering wildlife filmmakers in this section it might be instructive to have some background on the evolution of film, broadcasting and wildlife filmmaking from its inception - read more below:

The BBC undertook in 1945 to begin developing natural history broadcasting – but for radio (centered in Bristol). Because radio involved technology to broadcast, television grew out of radio, not out of cinema. In the US, popular radio programs began to migrate to television as soon as the technology was available – indeed, early television was often referred to as “radio with pictures” (rather than, say ‘cinema in miniature’). So when BBC Bristol began producing natural history content for television, it was an outgrowth of their radio production, and many of the radio personnel (e.g. Jeffery Boswall) made the transition from radio to television – although it wouldn’t be until 1957 that BBC Natural History Unit itself was formally established to produce natural history programs for television.

For television could do something cinema could not: bring wildlife into the home, so to speak. Indeed, this everyday access to nature on television helped send natural history cinema into decline in the 1950s. Even though Disney’s “True Life Adventures” were successful in the cinema, Disney had more success with them on television, where they reached larger audiences, and after twelve years ceased prodution of the True Life films (in 1960) to concentrate on television. (In any case, here is where some examples from Disney’s “True Life Adventures” might be included and discussed in greater depth – such as the famed lemming sequence from the 1958 film White Wilderness, which I believe is in the WFH collection – although the whole series has come out on DVD this year).

At the same time as Disney began taking its films to television (in the mid to late ‘50s), the BBC began making contracts with natural history filmmakers who had been producing for the big screen – Armand Denis, Hans Haas, etc – to produce short natural history films for regular series broadcast on television. These were essentially ‘mini-movies’, and although they often included brief introduction segments filmed later in a studio, they succeeded in bringing a new kind of weekly wildlife program to television, with exciting scenes and exotic locations that the old studio-bound programs could not equal – although they were still centered on the ‘personalities’ of the celebrity-filmmakers.

For some years, then, one could see natural history television as a kind of ‘struggle’ between ‘televisual’ forms (close-up, presenter-led, live, spontaneous, quickly produced, etc) and more ‘cinematic’ forms (blue-chip natural history movies, with lush musical scores and higher quality images shot on film, often taking months or even years to produce).

In 1961, the BBC encountered competition from Survival Anglia, founded by Aubrey Buxton and Colin Willock. Their films were intended to differ from BBC programs by cultivating what Willock described as a “get-up-and-go image.” There was to be more energy, more movement, and more excitement, with an emphasis on action-packed scenes filmed entirely in outdoor locations rather than on discussions filmed in studios. They intended to present wildlife as entertainment The key difference, Willock explained, was that the BBC’s Look series was “essentially a chat show with film clips, whereas Survival favoured ‘pure’ film.” Significantly, as part of that ‘pure film’ model, Survival programs would not include hosts or presenters like Denises or the Haases – although they would, of course, still rely on voice-over narration.

Throughout the 1960s, improvements in television technology led to bigger screens, and color images. Zoo shows and other studio-bound wildlife programs began fading away, as television could now begin to compete with cinema by showing wildlife films – essentially one hour movies, with more ‘cinematic’ qualities, including big, panoramic scenes filmed in spectacular locations. The BBC’s first colour wildlife program was transmitted on BBC2 in 1967.

In 1968, Survival broke into the huge US market (with Alan Root’s film Enchanted Isles), where more TV viewers meant that programs could be sold for much more money. Soon, both Survival and the BBC were selling programs in America – although in slightly different versions to suit American tastes.

In 1981, the BBC’s first big, expensively produced, multi-part “mega-series”, Life on Earth, was sold to the American market, and was so successful there that Americans began demanding more, which, in turn, made more money available for more (and eventually more expensive) production.

For more than three decades, then, ‘blue chip’ wildlife movies were the dominant wildlife format in both the UK and the US. Now, as television goes digital, and as screens get larger and sharper, with surround-sound technology, the early differences between ‘televisual’ and ‘cinematic’ styles are collapsing. Today’s television viewing experience is far more ‘cinematic’ than ever before.

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As wildlife film production increased over the years, it became organized as an ‘industry.’ Mainstream motion picture is divided into three phases: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition. Production refers to the big studios and corporations that make films, as well as the small independents. Exhibition refers to the theaters where films are shown, some of which are run by small private companies or even families, while others are parts of vast, nationwide chains. In between these two (producers and exhibitors) are distributors – firms that ‘buy’ films from producers and make deals with exhibitors to book them into theaters. When one company produces, distributes, and exhibits its own films, this is called “vertical integration,” because they control the product at each stage of its production – although this is often prohibited by laws designed to prevent monopoly control (by contrast, “horizontal integration” means buying up one’s competitors at the same level). In television, distribution and exhibition are combined into one process: broadcasting. It is broadcasters who are therefore the ‘buyers’ of content made by producers. The BBC is both a producer and a buyer, as is Discovery, and now, with its satellite channels, so is National Geographic. But most wildlife film producers are not also broadcasters – that is, they do not have their own television network on which to show their films. So they must try to sell their films to broadcaster/buyers.

One place where producers can display their wares for buyers to examine is at film festivals. As the wildlife film industry grew, not surprisingly it developed film festivals where producers and broadcasters could get together, just as the mainstream film industry does at festivals in Venice, Berlin, and Sundance, Utah. The first wildlife film festival, however, was not organized for or by the industry. The International Wildlife Film Festival was instead founded by an academic biologist in Missoula, Montana (USA), in 1978, and was more a ‘symposium’ where wildlife films could be analyzed and talked about, and where both good and bad films could be singled out for attention. Soon after, in 1980, a similar symposium was founded in the UK: The Bath Wildlife Filmmaker’s Symposium. When the wildlife film industry itself held its first real mainstream style film festival, Wildscreen, in 1982, it absorbed the Bath symposium, and became both a buyers-and-sellers festival, as well as a symposium with discussion panels where filmmakers could answer questions about their work, where films could be analyzed and dissected, and where both films and filmmakers could be recognised and given awards. On the model of Hollywood’s “Academy Awards,” Wildscreen is thus also a means for the industry to pay tribute to some of its leaders and high achievers.

In 1991 the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival was launched in America, largely on the model of Wildscreen – a combination of film screenings, presentations, discussion panels, master classes, and a big awards ceremony at the end to honor outstanding achievement in several categories. Over the years, many smaller wildlife film festivals have started up around the world where filmmakers can enter their films in hopes of getting them some attention and recognition and awards, but today Wildscreen and Jackson Hole remain the industry’s chief venues where filmmakers and buyers can come together to buy, sell, and make deals – as well as just to meet and form friendly relationships. Film festivals are thus a central component in how the wildlife film industry, as well as the mainstream film and television industry, operates.

The advent of inexpensive digital cameras and home-editing technologies has allowed more people to get into all sorts of filmmaking, including wildlife filmmaking.

Further, because of all the new broadcast distribution possibilities opened up by new satellite systems for beaming content to many markets around the world, there has been more demand for content, and therefore more opportunities than in the past to get one’s program out there in front of audiences. Included here, of course, is the internet – in particular such venues as YouTube, where amateurs can post their own short films, which are often seen by large audiences.

As a result, the once dominant Blue Chip model is now receding into a kind of high-end niche, where only the wealthiest of producers, able to amass vast budgets, can compete, while small companies and independent filmmakers with limited resources, shooting on consumer-grade equipment and editing on laptops, are finding audiences.

Compare this to what is going on the music world, where many small bands are getting their music heard not by way of contracts with big record companies, but by way of the internet and their own self-styled podcasts.

Perhaps unexpectedly, then, wildlife film has been returning to the Big Screen in cinemas, as seen in the success of Winged Migration (2004), March of the Penguins (2005), Arctic Tale (2007), and others.

Also, wildlife films made for large-format IMAX screens have drawn significant audiences, although not least because they are seen as “family friendly” in relation to increasingly ‘adult’ content on TV.

Click on the link:Key Events in Wildlife Filming History

Courtesy: wildfilmhistory.org/

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David Attenborough

Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS (born 8 May 1926) is an English broadcaster and natural historian. He is best known for writing and presenting, in conjunction with the BBC Natural History Unit, the nine natural history documentary series forming the Life collection that together constitute a comprehensive survey of animal and plant life on Earth. He is a former senior manager at the BBC, having served as controller of BBC Two and director of programming for BBC Television in the 1960s and 1970s. He is the only person to have won BAFTAs for programmes in each of black and white, colour, HD, 3D and 4K.

Attenborough is widely considered a national treasure in Britain, although he himself does not like the term. In 2002 he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide poll for the BBC. He is the younger brother of the director, producer and actor Richard Attenborough.

Courtesy: Wikipedia.org/


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